Friday, December 31, 2010

Happy New Year

Friday, December 31, 2010

Illustration by John T. McCutcheon, courtesy Wikimedia—to which you might want to consider making a year-end donation.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

But wasn't there snow in Colonial Williamsburg?

Thursday, December 30, 2010
A white Christmas in Virginia is a rarity, but this year a major snowstorm did sweep up the east coast just in time to blanket Colonial Williamsburg late on Christmas Day.

These two photos of Duke of Gloucester Street, left, were taken about 24 hours apart.

But while the snow was a headache for drivers, it also produced some of the most spectacular holiday decorations of all. CW's 18th c.-style buildings don't have gutters along their eaves (a later invention), which results in amazing, yard-long icicles, below. Also note how homeowners follow two rules: clear the steps, and knock the icicles away over the door – though this year, as was likely the case in the 18th c., there were always plenty of boys with snowballs eager to assist with the de-icicle process.

Colonial Williamsburg's Joyful Wreaths: VI

Most of the shops belonging to the historic trades of Colonial Williamsburg are decorated for the season just like the houses – but with a twist. While remaining within the guidelines for decorations (everything used must have been readily available in 18th c. Virginia, meaning no polyester ribbons, flashing electric Santas, or eucalyptus sprays), the tradesmen's wreaths often contain wry allusions to what goes on within the shop. The large, handsome wreath, above, appears at first glance to be squarely in the della Robbia tradition, with artichokes, pomegranates, straw flowers, and sliced oranges mixed with pine cones and spruce. But look a little closer: there's stitched and stuffed fruit in the mix as well. Gingham-check apples and ticking pears, plus cotton bolls, pay tribute to the work of the tailors and the mantua-makers employed here inside the Margaret Hunter shop.

The decoration, above, also reflects the shop's trade. Tucked in among the greenery, berries, and apples are a couple of powdered white queues, or pigtails, that could have graced the well-dressed head of an 18th c. gentleman or lady (though hardly in the same category as the false hair sported by this old beau!) The lower lock is tied with a black silk ribbon, while the upper one is still wrapped around its white clay curler. No surprise, then, that this wreath decorates the shop of the peruke and wig maker – a tradesman who would have been much in demand when everyone in the 18th c. town wanted to look their best for a holiday ball at the Governor's Palace. 

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Colonial Williamsburg's Joyful Wreaths: V

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

To casual visitors today, Colonial Williamsburg may seem like a charmingly idyllic version of the past, but the actual colonial city in 1776 was a hot-bed of revolutionary tumult and outright insurrection. It's not surprising to find politics creeping into every facet of CW's interpretation, including the holiday decorations. Yes, this house is decked with greenery and polished red apples, but hanging from the tradesman's sign is a pint-sized effigy of King George III, his neck so stretched that only the top of his fearsome crown shows.

But there's more commentary on the door:

Inside the wreath, the coiled rattlesnake from one of the most famous flags of the Continental forces – the so-called Gadsden flag used first by the Marines – is recreated in rope and golden flowers. Colonial eagles bravely trim the greenery, and across the top of the door is a taunting parade of English tea-labels, a reminder of that little affair involving the tea ships in Boston Harbor that made colonists quite forget about Christmas in December, 1773. Finally, in place of traditional Christmas sentiments, there's the motto of the Gadsden flag, spelled out in cinnamon sticks: Don't Tread on Me.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Colonial Williamsburg's Joyful Wreaths: IV

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Not exactly a wreath, but this fossilized shell and sprays of wheat still count as Christmas decorations in Colonial Williamsburg. The fossil is a Chesapecten jeffersonius, from the nearby James River – the official "state fossil" of Virginia. Chesapecten fossils were first noted by the Jamestown settlers in the early 17th c., and  officially given their scientific name in 1824 in honor of American President Thomas Jefferson. Chesapecten fossils were also the first North American fossil to be depicted in a European scientific publication,  Historiae Conchyliorum, published in 1687 by Martin Lister (who was, in that impossibly small world of 17th c. England, uncle to Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough) – all of which makes this a thoroughly historical Christmas ornament.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Colonial Williamsburg's Joyful Wreaths: III

Monday, December 27, 2010

Here's the doorway to the Raleigh Tavern in Colonial Williamsburg, with a bust of Sir Walter himself standing stern guard from the pediment. As is fitting for a tavern that was the gathering place for sporting gentlemen, the Christmas wreaths on the doors and the fans over the post-boards are made from pheasant feathers. Why the "closed" sign at the height of the holiday season? This picture was taken very early in the morning, at an hour when neither self-respecting 18th c. revelers nor 21st. c. tourists would have yet risen from their beds.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Colonial Williamsburg's Joyful Wreaths: II

Sunday, December 26, 2010

A pair of wreaths from a doorway in Colonial Williamsburg. These decorations are for the knitters and fiber-fanatics among our readers: the wreaths of holly and pine are decorated with large balls of undyed yarn. Also note the red apples tucked into the openings in the brickwork. While it's unlikely that any good 18th c. housewife would squander fresh fruit like this (though the local birds & squirrels approve), the effect to our modern eyes is handsome indeed.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Colonial Williamsburg's Joyful Wreaths: I

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Colonial Williamsburg is justly famous for its Christmas decorations. While not historically accurate to the 18th c., they often do use materials that are have a colonial inspiration, and feature natural materials from the Virginia countryside. This wreath includes magnolia leaves, oyster shells, and cotton bolls – a far cry from more traditional holly and evergreen, but every bit as festive.

Friday, December 24, 2010

A ghost for Christmas

Friday, December 24, 2010

The ghost - a Christmas frolic - le revenant
Artist John Massey Wright (1777-1866),
Published by Hassell & Richards, 1814 December 24
Courtesy Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Holiday Break

Wednesday, December 22, 2010
Loretta & Susan report:

Yes, we're taking another break while we enjoy the holidays with our families and friends.  Look for fresh new posts at the start of the New Year.

In the meantime, we'll be putting up some pictures.  You won't have much to read, but you will have some interesting and/or pretty holiday-themed material to look at.

Of course, we hope you'll be having too much fun with your own families and friends to notice our absence.

We wish you a most joyous holiday season and a New Year filled with many delightful revelations of the historical kind as well as many other good things!

Monday, December 20, 2010

Marching into Valley Forge: 1777 (and 2010)

Monday, December 20, 2010
Susan reporting:

On a cold Sunday evening when most people were finishing up their Christmas shopping at the nearby mall, we took a different path. We headed off across the moonlit fields of Valley Forge National Historical Park, and followed the path of General George Washington and the Continental Army as they marched into their winter encampment on 19 December, 1777.

Valley Forge is one of those rare historical names that almost all Americans recognize, a landmark in our war for independence. Yet despite how often the "battle" of Valley Forge may be invoked by confused politicians, there was no battle fought here. Eighteenth century armies followed the seasons, and hostilities ceased during the winter months. In 1777-78, the majority of the English army spent the cold months in the captured city of Philadelphia. The Continental army wintered about twenty miles west of the city on farmland near Valley Forge, building fortifications and thousands of small log cabins for shelter.

Though there were hardships at the encampment, park interpreters stress that the legendary "bloody footsteps in the snow" are later embellishments. These 12,000 men were enlisted soldiers, not militia, and 18th c. soldiers expected conditions to be primitive and food to come from foraging. The Continental forces included men from the thirteen colonies as well as European mercenaries. Many were experienced veterans, not only from recent battles, but from earlier colonial wars against the French and Indians. They came prepared and equipped, and instead of the traditional image of soldiers shivering in rags, most of these men wore full uniforms, and contemporary reports speak of a camp that was industrious and optimistic.

The real enemy at Valley Forge wasn't the British army, but disease. Nearly 2,000 men died during the encampment, with the majority dying not in the harshest winter months, but later in March, April, and May. The killers were the same diseases that ravaged all groups of 18th c. people: influenza, typhus, typhoid, and dysentery.

Yet there's no denying the importance of what happened here. Under the leadership of Washington and a former Prussian army officer, Baron Friedrich von Steuben, the men drilled and trained and came together not as a group of soldiers, but as a disciplined, professional army with a single goal. From many, one: E Pluribus Unum, the dictum chosen later in 1782 by Congress for the new Seal of the United States.

In the season of celebrations and shopping and Santas, it's good to take time to remember the past as well as the present. Standing there under full moon beside the replica log cabins (and doing a bit of replica shivering, too), we thought of those soldiers, and what they'd accomplished against such odds. And there, under the stars, we were most thankful that they had.

Above: Photo from the Annual March-In Commemoration of the Continental Army, 12/19/2010, Valley Forge National Historical Park, Valley Forge, PA. For more information about the Park, visit their website.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

At Last: Two Nerdy History Girls on Twitter

Saturday, December 18, 2010
Susan & Loretta reporting:

By now you've probably realized that we are historically obsessed, and it often takes a bit of prodding to get us to think of the present-day. Thus we are quite proud to announce that we've taken another bold step (for us, mind you): the Two Nerdy History Girls are now on Twitter as 2NerdyHistGirls, with even more news, links, gossip, and, of course, history.

To become a follower, simply click on the little bird in the column to the right. We hope you'll join us!

Friday, December 17, 2010

A White Muslin Gown (and What to Wear Under It), c. 1800

Friday, December 17, 2010
Susan reporting:

While the mantua-makers of Colonial Williamsburg concentrate on recreating historic dress from the 1770s, they do occasionally let their talented needles venture back and forth in time for special projects like this. The gown and turban, left, would have been the latest fashion for English and American ladies around 1800. The fabric is white cotton muslin, and the surface has been embroidered overall with tiny sprigs, stitched in white cotton thread.

While this style of gown with a raised waist and simple lines is familiar to modern eyes – particularly modern eyes familiar with the recent films based on the novels of Jane Austen – in the late 18th c., it would have seemed shockingly new.

For hundreds of years, the focus of women's dress had hovered around the natural waist, and stays, boning, and lacing had been combined to present a rigid, tapering torso. The appearance of a narrow waist has been increased by the full skirts, supported in the earlier 18th c. by hoops. Rich silks were the fabric of choice, with vibrant colors and elaborate patterning that came from either embroidery, or damask weaves. (See here and here for examples of gowns and here for stays and hoops from the 1770s; worn by the same model, Sarah Woodyard, it's easy to compare how the clothes change her shape.)

But all this changes by the end of the century. Aiming for classical simplicity, the new fashions featured high waists, simple lines, and pristine, light fabrics. While a few daring Frenchwomen would wear such a gown with few if any underpinnings, respectable Englishwomen did not – though compared to the whale-boned stays and hoops of the previous generation, it certainly must have felt wonderfully unencumbered.

Under her cotton gown, above right, Sarah is wearing a high-waisted petticoat with broad straps. Not only would this have given graceful volume to the gown, but it also would have offered a degree of modest opacity to the translucent white cotton, as well as helping to highlight the white-on-white embroidery as well. (See the detail of the embroidery, below right.)

Beneath the petticoat is a soft corset. Unlike the shorter stays, the corset extends below the waist and over the hips, creating a long, smooth line beneath the gown. Support comes from elaborate stitching rather than narrow rows of whalebone. The corset would have been worn over a light linen shift or chemise, never directly against the skin.

On her head, Sarah is wearing a silk turban for a touch of the exotic. The turban is trimmed with silver thread, silk ribbons, and of course an ostrich feather. Waistlines might rise, but feathers seemed to always be in style!

An observation: these photographs were taken in the Margaret Hunter millinery shop, which is illuminated entirely by natural light (and my camera's flash). On a late autumn afternoon, I was struck by how bright this all-white gown appeared in the shadowy room – an effect that never shows in 18th c. fashion plates. How the ladies originally dressed like this must have stood out in a sun-lit drawing room, or later in the evening by candlelight!

Thursday, December 16, 2010

London's dustmen

Thursday, December 16, 2010
Loretta reports:

Following up on my blog about ticket porters

Another figure on the London streets was the dustman.  We still have refuse collectors today, of course—but unlike those of old London, they don't pay for the honor.  And while the U.S. seems to be slowly catching on to recycling, we have a ways to go before we get to the Absolutely-Nothing-Wasted approach of our ancestors.

The 17th century’s dire bouts of plague led London in 1670 to set up a “regular body of scavengers, and dustmen, the former to sweep the open streets, and cart away the filth, and stagnant dirt; and the latter, to collect from door to door such waste materials as composed the dunghills.” 

Originally, these contractors were paid for their work.  Before long, though, the commissioners saw their error:  “Time has brought to light, that industry, aided by experiment, can turn everything to advantage, and that rubbish and filth, the former pests of the city, are now become a source of utility and wealth. The people who perform the duties of scavenger, and dustman, now pay a sum of money for the contract, and for being allowed the exclusive privilege of carting away the rubbish.

“Amongst other advantages which the public experience from this custom, must be mentioned, that it furnishes the means of an honest livelihood for a great number of men and women, of the lowest order, who are employed in separating the different materials, which are heaped together upon the dust hills.  The sea-coal cinders are picked out and sifted; the largest are sold to the brick-makers to burn in their kilns; the siftings are used as a manure.  The rags are picked out and sorted for making various sorts of paper.  The bones are reserved for making ivory black, and various other purposes; and the residue of the rubbish is used for manure, for mending the roads, or is applied to some useful occasion.”

Excerpts and illustration are from the hard-to-find Pyne’s British Costume, originally published in 1805 as The Costume of Great Britain.

If you have any doubts about the business’s profitability, look into Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend, in which a dustman and his dust heaps play leading roles.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

"The pleasures of the world are deceitful," 1728

Wednesday, December 15, 2010
Susan reporting:

As we saw yesterday with Regency courtesan Harriette Wilson, cheerfully, willfully bad girls are not a modern invention. Alexander Pope famously (if cynically) noted in 1735:

Men, some to Business, some to Pleasure take,
But every Woman is, at heart, a Rake:
Men, some to Quiet, some to public Strife,
But every Lady would be Queen for life.

Clearly this was enough to worry careful 18th c. parents of daughters. Then, as now, publishers happily answered the call, and London booksellers offered a wealth of cautionary guides for ladies. Sobriety, modesty, decorum, piety, and other traditional virtues are all preached on their pages, if not necessarily heeded by their readers. (Yes, Harriette, we mean you.)

Among the most popular of these conduct books was the 1728 Advice of a Mother to her Daughter by the Marquise de Lambert (1647-1733), which was translated into English and published in many editions throughout the century, an early self-help bestseller. Still, one suspects that more girls were breathlessly devouring the romantic trials and attempted seductions of Pamela and Clarissa (two more Georgian bestsellers by Samuel Richardson), than these somber words from the marquise:

The pleasures of the world are deceitful; they promise more than they perform; the quest of them is full of anxiety: their enjoyment is far from yielding any true satisfaction, and their loss is attended with vexation....Honours and riches have no charms that are lasting for any length of time...Pleasures when they grow familiar, lose their relish. Before you have tasted them, you may do without them; whereas enjoyment makes that necessary to you, which was once superfluous, and you are worse at your ease than you were before...and when you lose them, they leave you nothing but emptiness and want.

If you're feeling in need of more edification, Advice continues to be available in many different versions. Here it's included in a compilation of conduct manuals: The Young Lady's Pocket Library, or Parental Monitor, reprinted from a 1790 edition, and here, as a Google book of an 1800 edition.

Above: Mr. B. snatches Pamela's letter to her parents and reads it, illustration from Pamela, or, Virtue Rewarded by Samuel Richardson, 1742.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Harriette Wilson on virtue

Tuesday, December 14, 2010
Loretta reports:

The Regency era courtesan Harriette Wilson belonged to the sorority called Girls Just Want To Have Fun.  Here’s her take on virtue:
There certainly was much aggravation of sin, in my projected criminal intercourse with the Marquis of Worcester.  Many women, very hard pressed par la belle nature, intrigue because they see no prospect nor hopes of getting husbands; but I, who might, as everybody told me, and were incessantly reminding me, have, at this period, smuggled myself into the Beaufort family, by merely declaring to Lord Worcester, with my finger pointed towards the North—that way leads to Harriette Wilson’s bedchamber; yet so perverse was my conscience, so hardened by what Fred Bentinck calls, my perseverance in loose morality, that I scorned the idea of taking such an advantage of the passion I had inspired, in what I believed to be a generous breast, as might, hereafter, cause unhappiness to himself, while it would embitter the peace of his parents.

Seriously I have but a very confused idea of what virtue really is, or what it would be at.  For my part, all the virtue I ever practised, or desire to learn, was such as my heart and conscience dictated.

Now the English Protestant ladies’ virtue is chastity!  There are but two classes of women among them.  She is a bad woman the moment she has committed fornication; be she generous, charitable, just , clever, domestic, affectionate, and ever ready to sacrifice her own good to serve and benefit those she loves, still her rank in society is with the lowest hired prostitute.  Each is indiscriminately avoided, and each is denominated the same—bad woman, while all are virtuous who are chaste.

…The soldier’s virtue lies in murdering as many fellow creatures as possible, at the command of any man, virtuous or vicious, who may happen to be his chief, no matter why or wherefore.

The French ladies’ virtue is, generally speaking, all comprised and summed up in one single word and article—bienséance!*

Excerpt from The Memoirs Of Harriette Wilson, which were first published in 1825.
You can read the first two volumes from the 1909 edition online here.    And for further insight into this fascinating woman, you might want to look into The Courtesan’s Revenge: The Life of Harriette Wilson, the Woman Who Blackmailed the King.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Anne Boleyn's Shoes?

Monday, December 13, 2010
Susan reporting:

It's no secret that we NHG love a good history story (particularly if we've written it.) We do, however, appreciate the differences between History, and Fiction, and Wishful Thinking – distinctions that can often be blurred into a muddle of fact and fantasy, and then, oftener still, posted on the internet as gospel.

Which brings us to this pair of lady's shoes, left. While time hasn't treated them kindly, they must have been spectacular when new: salmon pink silk overlaid with gold mesh lace, overhanging square toes, elegantly shaped heels, and leather soles edged with red. Clearly these mules belonged to a lady of wealth and rank.

The family who most recently owned the shoes believed that lady was Anne Boleyn. Family tradition had a delightful story connected to them, repeated over the centuries:

"Nicholas Bristowe, a favourite courter of Henry VIII, was riding with the king and Queen Anne Boleyn in Hertfordshire. Passing Ayot St Lawrence, he greatly admired the place, wondering whose it was. The king said,"It is mine, but now shall be yours." Bristowe asking what evidence he was to produce of the gift, the king gave him the hat he was wearing and asked the queen for her slippers, saying, "Bring these in London and I will give you the title deeds." The hat and slippers have since always gone with the estate."

But while the shoes (and a man's hat) have been carefully preserved to support the tale, the historical facts proved too weighty. Records show that Henry didn't grant the estate to Bristowe until 1540, four years after poor Anne's execution in 1536. (See here for more discouraging details.)

The experts at Christie's auction house put a further damper on the legend. To their unromantic eyes, the style and construction of the shoes date them to the 1630s, a century too late for Anne. When they were put up for auction, the catalogue description sourly noted that they were "Said to have belonged to Anne Boleyn, but of a later date." Still, there was a measure of hope for historical day-dreaming: "The vendor's ancestor held court office at the Tower of London, and this is said to be how the shoes came to be in the family's possession." Not Anne Boelyn, no, but given the turbulent politics of the 1630s-40s, these shoes might well have an equally exciting story of a great Royalist lady imprisoned in the Tower....

Thanks to Chris Woodyard for her assistance with this post.

Above left: A Pair of Gold Lace Lady's Mules, 1630s, photograph courtesy Christie's.
Above right: Portrait of Anne Boleyn, c. 1530, artist unknown.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Update: More Brave Faces in Old Photos

Saturday, December 11, 2010
Susan reporting:

Earlier this year, I shared the mid-19th c. photograph of an ancestor of mine whose identity is uncertain beyond being family. Now the Library of Congress has a similar, if much larger, puzzle, and they're asking for your assistance to solve at least part of it.

Recently the Lijenquist Family donated their collection of almost 700 ambrotype and tintype photographs to the Library of Congress in remembrance of the thousands of Union and Confederate soldiers who served in the American Civil War (1861-1865). The images are nearly all of soldiers, as well as a few of their families. These pictures offer an immediate connection to the past: the subjects stare directly from the pictures, carefully posed for posterity in what, for many of them, must have been both their first and last portraits.

But over the years, many of the names of these young soldiers have been forgotten and lost.  The Library of Congress has posted this album of the pictures on Flickr, hoping that viewers will be able to help offer names to match these brave faces. Can you help?

Above: Unidentified young soldier in Confederate uniform and Hardee hat with holstered revolver and artillery saber, Library of Congress

Friday, December 10, 2010

London Fashions for December 1819

Friday, December 10, 2010
Loretta reports:

Here's a nice little wool and velvet number for the fashionable lady of late 1819.

London Fashions for December

A PELISSE composed of kerseymere: the colour is a peculiar shade of grey; it is lined with white sarsnet. The body is tight to the shape, the waist is rather long, and the sleeve is set in so as to just touch the point of the shoulder: the sleeve is wide, and falls very much over the hand. The skirt is moderately full, meets before, and fastens down on the inside. The trimming is composed of ruby-coloured velvet; it is of a new pattern, and exceedingly rich and elegant; it goes round the bottom, and up each of the fronts. The epaulettes and cuffs correspond with the trimming. High standing collar, trimmed in a similar manner. Head-dress, a bonnet composed of ruby velvet, intermixed with levantine: the crown is made of folds of these two materials, so disposed as to form a point in the centre, which has a light and novel effect: the brim is large, and of a singular but becoming shape; it is finished at the edge by a rich roll of ruby levantine, to which is attached a full fall of blond lace, set on narrow towards the ears, and broad in the middle of the brim: this style of trimming adds much softness to the countenance. A high plume of ostrich feathers, to correspond, is placed upright in front, and a rich ribbon ties it under the chin. Gloves to correspond with the pelisse. Half-boots, the lower part of black leather, the upper part grey levantine.

From the Repository of arts, literature, fashions, Vol. VIII. No. XLVIII, published by R. Ackermann, 1819
Kerseymere—Fine woolen suiting, having two-thirds of the filling and one-third of the warp on the face.
Levantino—Four-leaf, double-faced, closely woven silk serge, having single or ply warp.  Comes mostly in solid colors but also in stripes.
Sarsenet— Plain, woven stout piece dyed English cotton cloth finished with high gloss, often calendered to give the appearance of a twill; used for lining, etc.

Definitions from the Dictionary of Textiles by Louis Harmuth, 1915

Thursday, December 9, 2010

A Lady's Hat for Riding (Really), c. 1780

Thursday, December 9, 2010
Susan reporting:

We've discussed here (and here and here) how 18th c. ladies dressed for riding. Their habits were crisply tailored and buttoned with a masculine, military flair, and featured a close-fitted bodice over a flowing skirt. Solid colors were the rule, again adding a uniform flavor. Many English ladies were skilled horsewomen, and even if they weren't, they believed in dressing the part.

Yet all that brisk horse-sense went out the window when it came to what they wore on their heads. Not for them the modern hard-shell protective helmets. No, the 18th c. lady crowned her riding attire much as she would with any dress for day: with a froth of feathers.

Regardless of the color of the habit, the most popular hats were monochrome black, with feathers, cockades, ribbons, and buttons in black as well. This replica, left, (from the Margaret Hunter milliner's shop in Colonial Williamsburg) is typical of the last quarter of the 18th c., and brings to life the jaw-dropping reality of the height and wafting excess that were typical. One can only imagine what the horses must have thought to see such a confection heading their way – and how many ribbons and hat pins were necessary to keep one in place.

While it's often the case that the most extreme examples of 18th c. fashion shown in satirical prints were exaggerations, in this case the plumed hats were very much worn by real ladies. This 1793 portrait by George Stubbs (1724-1806) of the infamous Lady Laetitia Lade (right) shows her nonchalantly sitting side-saddle on her rearing horse, her black-plumed hat nearly touching the branches overhead. Laetitia was scandalous for a good many reasons, but no one ever doubted her seriousness or skill where horses were concerned: she was wed to Sir John Lade, himself considered one of the best horsemen and breeders of the Regency era. If Laetitia rode in a tall, feathered hat like this one, then yes, it was definitely Done -– and done with style. (Look for a post soon about Laetitia, an Intrepid Woman if ever there was one.)

Right: Laetitia, Lady Lade, by George Stubbs, 1793, The Royal Collection

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

NHG Library: Costume in Detail 1730-1930

Wednesday, December 8, 2010
Loretta reports:

As my numerous posts from fashion magazines attest, I spend a lot of time these days studying and thinking about historic dress.  Thanks to NHG Susan’s many enticing suggestions, my collection of costume books has become what some might call excessive.  Today the spotlight is one of my most-frequently-consulted.

When I’m working on a scene where the characters’ clothes are very important for one reason or another, the book I’m most likely to open first is Nancy Bradfield’s Costume in Detail 1730-1930.

It isn’t a gorgeous book, like the coffee-table size V&A or university press publications.  Its pages contain not a smidgen of color.  It’s all text and drawings, fanatically detailed drawings in which every seam has been measured and noted, every button or hook accounted for…  In short, when Ms. Bradfield says "in detail," she means in detail.

According to her introduction, her “studies…are entirely from private collections; only a mere handful have ever been exhibited or seen by the general public.  Several are too frail or too soiled ever to be put on view.”  However, it’s easy enough to apply information from her book to the beautiful color photographs in other books, like Jane Ashelford’s The Art of Dress , or Lucy Johnston’s Nineteenth Century Fashion in Detail.  Now and again, I’ll find in these books one of the dresses she’s drawn.  She also might include on a page a little hand-drawn copy of a famous painting or fashion illustration that corresponds to the item she’s anatomized.  A page featuring shawls, for instance, includes her sketch of Ingres’ famous painting of Madame Rivière (below right).

The Appendix includes some extremely beautiful drawings of items from Ms. Bradfield’s own collection—three from the Regency and one from 1913.

If you’ve ever wondered exactly how a Regency era spencer was constructed, how long a dress opening was below the waistline (Would one step out of it or pull it over one’s head?), how and where a dress fastened, how a lady’s parasol worked, or the size of various ladies’ feet, this is the book for you.

(In accord with some FTC rule or other—which probably doesn’t apply to us, since we're not reviewers, but never mind—readers are hereby informed that I bought this book with my own hard-earned cash.)

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The Perfect Eighteenth Century Doll

Tuesday, December 7, 2010
Susan reporting:

With Christmas fast approaching and girls fine-tuning their wish lists for Santa, I thought I'd bring you a doll that must have brightened the eyes of her long-ago little mistress.

Known as "Miss Barwick" in honor of the West Yorkshire family that owned her for several generations, this elegant lady (left and below right) was carved from wood around 1760. She stands 24 inches tall on jointed legs in blue silk stockings and tiny leather shoes. Her gesso-covered head is artfully painted, her black enamel eyes sparkle, and her fair curls (a bit tangled, but what lady's would be after 250 years?) are genuine human hair.

She's still quite the fashion plate, too. She wears her original gown of blue silk brocade with a quilted, boned linen bodice, and a long hooded cloak of gold silk, all in the latest Georgian fashion.

But what truly marks Miss Barwick as A Lady is that she has her own sedan chair. Though the carrying rails are missing, the rest of the chair's appointments are there: brocade cushions for comfort and curtains for privacy, and studded trim for extra style points. And to let everyone in the street know that this chair belongs to her, the door is embossed with an ornate initial "B." Just as today's fashion doll has her pink Jaguar convertible, 18th c. counterpart had her sedan chair, and we're sure the fabulous Miss Barwick steeped from her chair to attend countless imaginary balls and frolics that would make even Barbie jealous.

These days, Miss Barwick has retired from society, and resides at the Ilkley Toy Museum in West Yorkshire. But there are other 18th c.-style dolls at play for the holidays. In the Margaret Hunter Shop of Colonial Williamsburg, the miniature millinery shop is once again on display for the Yuletide season (left), complete with the replica Georgian fashion dolls (or "babies") minding the store. The tiny milliner is trying to tempt her customer with everything from hoops to a calash bonnet, and has even served tea to help coax the sale. If you've visited the shop, you'll recognize how closely the miniature inventory follows the full-size one – and also how much fun playing with dolls can be, whatever the age or era.

Many thanks to Chris Woodyard for introducing us to Miss Barwick!

Top left: Miss Barwick and her sedan chair, photograph by Christie's Auction House.
Right: Miss Barwick, photograph by Ilkley Toy Museum.
Lower left: The Doll's Millinery Shop, photograph by the Margaret Hunter Shop, Colonial Williamsburg.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Ticket porters

Monday, December 6, 2010
Loretta reports:

Susan’s post about link boys reminded me of another vanished figure of the London streets:  the ticket porter.

I first encountered the breed in Dickens, in David Copperfield.  But more memorable is the ticket porter named Trotty Veck, the hero of Dickens’s 1844 Christmas story, The Chimes

They were something like today's messengers, but not quite.   They were cheaper, they carried just about anything, and they waited on the streets at "stands," rather like cabs.

 Those of us living in the world of historical romance are accustomed to the lives of the privileged, who send their servants to do the fetching and carrying.  But from the 17th through the 19th century ticket-porters served the rest of the public.  They were licensed to carry messages, documents, and goods for predetermined fees.  They were called ticket-porters because “they can produce a ticket or a document, showing that they are duly qualified, and have been ‘admitted and allowed to use the feate of a porter,’ by being freemen of the city and members of a porter's company or fellowship,”  according to Thomas Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor

Most of them wore their tickets as badges, carried a cane, and wore white aprons. 
For the porterage or delivery of any letter, message, packet, box, package, parcel, truss, or other thing whatsoever.

N.B. When any ticket porter shall carry and deliver any letter, message, or parcel, not exceeding fourteen pounds weight, and to return and bring any other letter, message, or parcel, not exceeding fourteen pounds weight, for such last mentioned letter, message, or parcel, one half of the above sum authorised to be taken.  —From Cruchley's picture of London, 1834

“We are told that by the custom of the City, no parcel, however small, can be carried for hire from one part of the City to another except by a ticket porter, but the rule is of course continually evaded.”  —From The Westminster review, Volumes 39-40, 1843

According to the Morning Post of 23 December 1844, Trotty Veck isn't typical:  "[He has] no monopoly to carry goods at fixed high prices [nor] impunity to knock down all living obstructions to his way...instead of being 'up to a thing or two,' poor Toby Veck is ready to do anything for anybody at anybody's price." —from my no-longer-available Penguin edition of Charles Dickens's The Christmas Books Volume 1.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Link Boys as Cupid

Friday, December 3, 2010
Susan reporting:

As I've written here before, Katherine Sedley, Countess of Dorchester (1657-1717), was not a typical royal mistress. Considered plain, even ugly, by her contemporaries, Katherine relied not on beauty to make her way at court, but on her scathing wit.

She also made her share of enemies, including Charles Sackville, Earl of Dorset (His Lordship has last appeared here before, too, with Katherine's father, both Men Behaving Badly). Dorset asked Katherine to become his mistress, suggesting she was too homely to expect any better offers. Not surprisingly, she declined, and the earl retaliated by publishing a series of scurrilous lampoons about her, including these lines:

   Love is a calm and tender joy,
   Kind are his looks and soft his pace; 
   [Katherine's] Cupid is a blackguard boy
   That runs his link into your face.

Seventeenth century gossip-hounds would have understood the snark factor here as clearly as their modern counterparts devour Perez Hilton. Most court beauties would have had a rosy-cheeked Cupid to guide their love affairs, but Katherine deserved a much less adorable version: a malicious link boy.

Link boys were a necessary evil in London before street lights. Poor boys carried lighted torches, called links, and loitered outside taverns and playhouses, hoping to be hired to light the way through dark streets –and, often, to lead unsuspecting gentlemen into a dark alley with waiting thieves. But link boys were also known to be victims themselves, child prostitutes catering to wealthy pederasts. In the unsentimental 17th-18th c., link boys were seen as despicable creatures: poor and dishonest, perverted and untrustworthy, their faces blackened by their sooty links. If you were a respectable Londoner, you likely believed the soul of a link boy was equally as black. Lord Dorset chose his words to be insulting, and they are.

Which brings me around to this curious painting by Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-92). Painted a century after Lord Dorset's slander was written, this picture also portrays a link boy as Cupid. Instead of the white-feathered wings that Cupid usually sports, the link boy version has black bat's wings, as befits a creature of the night. He is also holding his link in a most suggestive manner, making his role as a sexual plaything abundantly clear. As a classical Cupid, his phallic link could also be ready to fan the flames of love in the unsuspecting. Beneath his tattered coat, he appears to be wearing an ancient tunic instead of an 18th c. shirt, and across his chest is a strap that could hold a quiver of arrows, those "love darts" that cause so much amorous mischief in mythology.

Yet although the elements for a satiric print are all there, the mood isn't. While Reynolds was famous for his society portraits, he also painted smaller "fancy," or fanciful, pictures like this one for his own amusement. For these he drew his inspiration not from great ladies, but from common people he glimpsed in the street. This Cupid must have been one of those, some unknown link boy whose face captured Reynolds' imagination, and whose poverty is indicated by his tattered clothes and the derelict buildings in the background. But instead of a traditionally impish Cupid, this boy's expression seems dark and introspective, and almost too sensitively painted by Reynolds. Did the painting begin as a ribald dirty joke, only to have the conventional smirking Cupid waylaid by the poignant reality of the young model?

Above: Cupid as a Link Boy, by Sir Joshua Reynolds, c. 1771. For more about Reynolds' painting, check out this audio post at one of our fav fellow-blogs, Georgian London.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Miracle remedies of 1807

Thursday, December 2, 2010
Loretta reports:

The ladies' magazines include some interesting advertisements for "unmentionable" problems.

For those distressing Debilities which prevent, or render unhappy the Marriage State (but cannot, with a due regard to delicacy, be mentioned in a public Magazine), long experience has proved Sir Hans Sloane's Restorative and Re-animating Pills to be the most certain and sovereign remedy.

A Pamphlet, containing a more particular description of their virtues, and much useful information to the afflicted, may be had (price 1s.) at Mr. Perrin's, No. 23, Southampton-street, Covent-Garden, London; where they are sold wholesale and retail; and retail by all the principal Medicine Venders in London.—To persons in the country (inclosing payment and postage to Mr. Perrin, as above) they will be immediately forwarded, price 10s 6d.

Females are certainly liable to many Diseases that render their condition truly wretched and unequal, when compared with the other sex. If they enter the wedded state, even from that source of pleasure something bitter arises, and pregnancy brings with it a length of loathing, &c; if they remain single, they will scarcely avoid Labouring under some infirmity, because they are strangers to a mother's pangs.

Solomon's Guide to Health, price 3s. contains a complete Treatise on those Secret Infirmities of Nature, which delicacy often forbids to disclose, even to their nearest relatives: and a Treatise on Female Diseases, Nervous, Hypochondriac, and Consumptive Complaints.

Also, the Cordial Balm of Gilead, 10s 6d. is the best Medicine for Relaxations, Debility, Lassitude, Tremors, Sinking of the Spirits, and all those Nervous Affections which harrass and oppress the weak, sedentary, and delicate.
The family £33s.bottles contain four half-guinea ones, and are sold by Matthews and Leigh, No. 18, Strand, London.

From  La Belle assemblée, Volume 3, 1807

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

A Pin Ball, the Perfect Lady's Accessory, 1770

Wednesday, December 1, 2010
Susan reporting:

It's all well and good to admire elaborate silk gowns fit for a royal court, but often it's the everyday elements of historic dress that are much more evocative of the past. Eighteenth century English and American women gave as much thought to their accessories as their modern counterparts, and their choices of fans, caps, scarves, and gloves were the little touches that always personalize fashion. (So did gentlemen, who took considerable care choosing their own handkerchiefs, hats, snuff boxes, and even nutmeg graters.)

For many women from about 1750-1850, day dress would not be complete without a pin ball hanging at their waists from a hook or chatelaine. Pin balls were small, plump pin-cushions suspended from a ribbon or chain, and often framed with a ring of silver. Some were embroidered, others worked in cross stitch or needlepoint, and still others were knitted with fine-gauge steel needles. The designs could be as simple as the worker's initials and a few stylized flowers, or elaborate enough to contain a short maxim or endearment.

In an era when clothing worn by women and children and even babies' diapers was fastened with straight pins (more about pins and pinning here), a pin ball with pins was almost a necessity. But a pin ball was also a sign of the wearer's virtuous industry, and, when beautifully worked, her skill with a needle as well. Pin balls were popular gifts between friends and close relatives, too, a small, hand-worked token to be shared and treasured.

The pin ball shown here belongs to Janea Whitacre, mantua-maker of the Margaret Hunter shop in Colonial Williamsburg. She worked the design in counted cross stitches on linen, and hangs the pin ball conveniently from her waist (along with the key to the shop) from her chatelaine -– the silver hook engraved with her initials.

While it's unlikely that pin balls will make a comeback as a fashionable accessory along with an iPhone, they are still being created by skilled modern needleworkers as special tokens. If you're feeling ambitious, the designs are available as thoroughly modern downloads or in this book (also here), and replica silver rings can be ordered from the Mary Dickinson shop in Colonial Williamsburg (757-229-1000.)
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